High Variance

The Morality of Voting

My friend Julian is a pretty nice guy. He’s generous with his time and tolerant of most social behavior. He honors his commitments and is honest in his communication. But at the same time, he chooses not to participate in the US democratic government by voting. For those of us who see voting as a moral obligation, this is somewhat disturbing. Julian recently posted a clear statement of why on his blog (which makes for a good read in general BTW). Since he is economic theorist by training, he makes his argument by laying out a fairly standard economic model of voting and pointing out how it is perfectly rational for him to vote and many other people not to.

In Julian’s model, people benefit from voting in two ways: the (slight) chance they will personally influence the election and the “warm glow” (WG) they get from the experience. If the sum of these outweigh the costs of missing work and traveling to the polling place, then people will vote. Julian justifies his personal decision by saying that most other people must get a warmer feeling inside when they vote since the chance of any one person changing the election is tiny. As models go, this one is pretty empty (as Julian admits) since so much of the action happens in WG and it says nothing about where WG comes from.

I think utilitarian models are great for describing behavior, but lousy for defining what behavior is right or wrong. Just because someone might find stealing to be individually rational if their chances of being caught are low, that doesn’t make it right. Before I go on, I want to be perfectly clear that I don’t know anything about philosophy–I couldn’t even make much sense of this comic book guide to philosphy when I read it a few years ago. That said, Julian’s description of Kant’s categorical imperative really spoke to me. In his (Julian’s) words, “citizens are morally obligated to vote if they prefer a world in which others do”. I translate this to mean “it’s immoral to free-ride on other people’s voting behavior”. This is a statement outside the model about behavior that may or may not be rational inside the model. Julian justifies his own action in this context by saying he wants everyone to act as he would act conditional on the WG they happen to feel.

If Kant were here, I think he would say that WG is BS and that people don’t decide whether or not to vote in order to maximize their utility–they decide between right and wrong. I vote because I want to live in a world where everyone (or at least the informed folks vote), not because it makes me feel warmer than it does Julian. To be more precise, I think WG is almost homogeneously distributed and some people are moral and some are immoral free-riders.

Of course, my statement about Julian being an upstanding moral guy in the rest of his life still holds. :) I just think he’s putting too much faith in the first theorem of welfare economics. Just because there are some (many?) situations where individually rational behavior leads to a socially optimal outcome doesn’t mean all situations are like that.